Ames citizens unsure about convention project voting


Courtesy of the City of Ames

Should Iowa State University students care about next Tuesday’s vote on a new convention center in Ames?

Makayla Tendall

Ames citizens remain unsure as to whether the proposed renovations to the Iowa State convention center will benefit the community.

The renovations proposed by the Ames Convention & Visitors Bureau, which is funded by a portion of the hotel and motel tax allotted by the city, would include a renovation to the top two floors of the Scheman Building and adding a 35,000 square foot space to the north side, almost twice the size of the floor of Hilton Coliseum.

Julie Weeks, executive director of the Ames Convention & Visitors Bureau, said that the renovation would provide “a new convention center by only paying for the additional space.”

In order for the project to pass, 60 percent of Ames citizens will need to approve the project. Voting will be from 7 to 8 p.m. March 4.

Voters can go to any of the seven polling locations around Ames. If the project is approved, Iowa State would pay $19 million of the expenses. The other half of funding would come from property taxes that would cost the average Ames homeowner $60 a year for the next 20 years.

“Right now, we don’t have a location in Ames that can do more than 500 people for a banquet,” Weeks said. “We have a lot of groups that want to use the new space. We have a lot of groups that we have lost that potentially we can get back.”

Iowa State currently uses the convention centers for educational and athletic programs, clubs, student organizations and events like career fairs. The space is also used to present ISU research to professionals around the world.

“By building it, Ames citizens will have usage of it — with citizen fees — and then also we’re looking at doing a program very similar to the library where nonprofit groups can use the space at no charge,” Weeks said.

However, many Ames citizens are not convinced that they will benefit from a new convention center and that the renovation is unnecessary.

“What I hear from people these days is if ISU wants to build a flat-space, we don’t think building it in the flood plains is a good idea, but ISU should pay for it. People are less convinced that the people of Ames will get their use out of it,” said Sue Ravenscroft, professor of accounting and citizen of Ames who has created fliers to discourage Ames citizens from approving the convention center.

Weeks said that organizations in Ames currently use the convention centers and will most likely not continue to use the space without the additional expansion and renovation. These groups include youth groups, Iowa High School Music and Iowa High School Speech associations, after-prom events, wedding receptions and large events.

“If you look at other communities around the state of Iowa, most communities invest in this type of facility in some way or another. [Ames citizens] had usage of those facilities for 40 years and have never invested in it. Those facilities that currently exist at the Iowa State center were paid for completely with private funds — especially Stephen’s, Hilton and Scheman,” Weeks said.

Weeks said that the Ames Convention & Visitors Bureau has already lost 18 groups that come to Ames because the convention centers do not have enough space to satisfy their needs. With the renovations, Weeks said those groups will return, along with others, and boost the Ames economy through their dining and traveling expenses.

After some controversy regarding miscalculated economic benefits on an analysis report, Weeks and Tina Colburn, president of the bureau board of directors, said that they have corrected their report. They also said the economic benefits for Ames, if the project is approved, should be greater than the report done by the Convention, Sports & Leisure International consulting firm.

“There will be a benefit back to the community, whether it’s a low-end or a high-end by bringing people into the community that helps,” Weeks said. “Also, it does create jobs, and a lot of those jobs are part-time jobs, which are great for students.”

Ravenscroft said the 25 to 36 jobs created by a renovation is not enough to outweigh the operating costs that the bureau — funded by taxes and ISU — already pays for the convention centers.

Ravenscroft said only one-third of the visitors forecasted to come to Ames will care about the renovation because not all visitors will stay overnight and contribute to hotel-motel tax.

Ravenscroft also said she and some other Ames citizens are displeased with how the Ames Convention & Visitors Bureau has campaigned for the proposed convention center after they established the organization Yes to advocate for the project. She said the hotel and motel tax that funds the bureau is public money, and Ames citizens should have more of a say in how it is used.

“We could spend it on paying for the library. They think it’s their money that belongs to them,” Ravenscroft said. “I and some others think it belongs to the public, and we give it to them. They should not be spending money, telling us how to advocate on ballot issues.”

As per Iowa law, if a group is going to spend more than $750, a separate entity must be established and reported to the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board. The board of directors for the convention bureau approved a $30,000 contribution to the Yes group, which is legal according to bylaws for the convention and visitors bureau.

The convention bureau spoke about the project on two local radio stations, did interviews with Ames Tribune reporters for newspaper articles and hosted information meetings about which bureau members were notified.

Ravenscroft said the Ames Convention & Visitors Bureau has not done enough to notify the public about the project and the economic benefits reports — which were posted on the city of Ames website — were not made largely apparent to citizens.

Ravenscroft said the bureau may have not wanted the public to know what she considers to be unappealing economic benefits so that everyone was “relatively uninformed” and would not vote against the project.

“I suspect that’s what they wanted, but some of us raised a ruckus,” Ravenscroft said.